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Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space
Delivered by Ambassador Bruce Turner
March 30, 2023

Ambassador Bruce Turner’s Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament on Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS)


Thank you for calling this session on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. This is an issue that deserves serious attention by this body. It is regrettable that we are holding this discussion without an agreed Program of Work and without the usual observers in the room. Nonetheless, the United States welcomes this opportunity to discuss the importance of discussing measures that can enhance outer space stability and sustainability.

The final report of the Special Session on Disarmament from 1978 called for the development of further measures and appropriate international negotiations in accordance with the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty. In meeting this challenge, the United States believes we should develop measures that can reduce the risk of conflict occurring in outer space, rather than focusing solely on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space. Allow me to explain why we think this is the best approach.

The United States believes that we must consider all of the available arms control tools in our collective efforts to develop further measures for the exploration and use of outer space for the benefit and in the interest of all countries. With a more comprehensive approach, we can build trust and shared understandings among our States.

A comprehensive approach to addressing this issue entails three key elements, in our view.

· First, ensuring compliance with, and full implementation of, the existing international legal regime;

· Second, reviewing existing and future counterspace threats, as well as the overarching international security environment; and

· Third, developing a step-by-step approach which can include: developing and implementing norms of responsible behavior and other transparency and confidence building measures for national security space activities; considering concepts and proposals for new legally-binding agreements that are equitable and effectively verifiable; and examining other measures that are available to States that could help maintain international peace and security, such as export controls.

During these times of tension and reduced confidence, compliance with existing arms control agreements is not only essential, but key to rebuilding trust. The Outer Space Treaty, including its arms control provisions, lays out essential rules for, and restraints on, States Parties’ exploration and use of outer space. Article IV of this Treaty has removed the most destabilizing of outer space weapons threats by preventing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction from orbiting around our planet. For fifty-six years, spacefaring and non-spacefaring States alike have committed to and respected Article IV of this Treaty.

We call on all countries to commit to compliance with international law, including the four core space treaties, and specifically, the Outer Space Treaty. This is an important call to action because there are countries in this room that are not party to the Outer Space Treaty yet advocate for additional legally-binding space arms control agreements. We would encourage them first to become party to this Treaty before calling for new legally-binding arms control measures.

In that vein, we believe the CD would be an appropriate venue to clarify States’ positions on how existing obligations under international humanitarian law in situations of armed conflict apply in outer space. As we have heard during the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats, some countries argue that international humanitarian law does not apply in outer space. Key among the basic principles set out in Article III of the Outer Space Treaty, however, is that States Parties shall carry out their activities in the exploration and use of outer space in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations.

For the United States and the vast majority of countries, it is clear that international law – including international humanitarian law in situations of armed conflict – applies to conduct in outer space. This point is particularly relevant in light of statements by our Russian colleagues, first in October at the UNGA First Committee, but subsequently repeated in numerous UN organizations, that satellites providing support to Ukraine in response to Russia’s illegal invasion, and I quote, “may be a legitimate target for a retaliation.” It is threats like these that are driving countries to develop the ability to defend their systems in outer space.

Madam President,

As we look at other measures the international community could be taking, the United States believes that the most practical and effective means to address these urgent issues is to devise appropriate transparency and confidence building measures, as well as norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior. The first would build trust whilst the second would pragmatically address threats. Such efforts could form the basis, as appropriate, for the development of legally-binding agreements.

In the view of the United States, the most urgent threat to space systems comes from destructive testing of Earth-to-space anti-satellite missiles. Over the last two decades, several of these tests have destroyed satellites on orbit, and one recent test created 1,785 pieces of trackable debris. Such debris degrades the outer space environment, increases the cost of operating in space, and reduces the global benefits that space enables. This is not only an issue of strategic stability, since reckless destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing denies critical space services and consequently affects the entire world.

Last year in the UN General Assembly, 155 States recognized that continued destructive testing of these direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons is unacceptable. Resolution GA/77/41 was a clear demonstration of the international community’s concern about this reckless behavior. It was also

an important first step in what we hope will be the development of additional norms to anticipate and address pressing threats to space security.

Additionally, the United States submitted a paper to the Third Meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on Space Threats that put forward seven proposals for additional norms, rules, and principles of responsible State behavior. More detail can be found in document A/AC294/2023/WP5. We look forward to discussing those proposals further at the next meeting of the OEWG. We would also welcome discussing them here in the CD.

Madam President,

As a final note, a couple of words on verification. The international community, including at the SSOD-1, has long supported the importance of verification in arms control and disarmament. The United States knows only too well that verification is a painstaking, resource-intensive, difficult, yet essential part of many arms control agreements. The situation in space is very different, however. How does one verify whether a satellite in orbit has a missile on it? How does one country understand the intent of another country with regard to its on-orbit servicing capabilities? Unfortunately, there are no pragmatic or proven proposals for how to conduct verification of weapons in outer space.

In the current environment of tension and mistrust, we believe we should take tangible and concrete steps to address the risks of misunderstanding that could lead to conflict or damage the long-term sustainability of the outer space environment. The most critical issues to address are not doctrines or strategies or flawed and unverifiable potential treaties. Instead, we need to take a comprehensive, step-by-step approach, relying on clear, practical and proven ways to address those behaviors that could lead to mistrust, miscalculation and misunderstandings.

Thank you, Madam President.